Lessons from Swimming
The wisdom of our Jewish Tradition includes teachings for parenting. One of the most famous Talmudic statements is a list of those things which a parent is obligated to provide for a child: "A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Others say: teach him how to swim as well." (Kiddushin 29a)
We have to teach our children how to swim. That makes sense. It is a basic survival skill. I remember being taught to swim as a kid, and those lessons have served me well. I became a lap swimmer in college, and still today, in my middle age it is my preferred exercise. But it has become more than exercise. It is a mindfulness practice. As I count the laps, the chatter in my brain quiets and my mind clears. By the time I’m finished, my body is calm, my thoughts are stilled, and I am ready to take on the day.
This uncluttered mind state is a common effect of exercise, for which there is a physiological explanation. So this is nothing new. And we know how mindfulness practices help us refocus our thoughts, cultivate stillness and create awareness to the present moment. Reduced stress levels and clear thinking are among the benefits of mindfulness practices.
The Rabbis of the Hasidic Period (18th C) emphasize spiritual teachings, which include mindfulness practices. The Piasetzner Rebbe, Reb Kalonymos Kalman taught a technique for sensing the divine, called hashkatah, or “quieting.” It involves a gradual clearing of the brain until it lies still and unperturbed. Only then, can one focus solely on the thought of God. This practice of hashkatah can lead one to an increased visceral sensitivity of the world, along with an enhanced awareness of reality.
Hashkatah describes precisely what happens when I swim. While my thoughts may not be solely directed towards God, I can, in this quieted state approach the next task, person or event more calmly and with greater focus.
That dictum to “teach your children how to swim” takes on a deeper meaning. Yes, we have to teach our children basic survival skills in order that they can ‘stay afloat’ in the world. We might also help them cultivate a hashkatah practice, with which they can de-stress their bodies and minds, cultivate stillness and greater awareness of their thoughts and needs.
And what’s good for our children, particularly in this case, is good for us. Take this as an invitation to cultivate a hashkatah practice that will serve you. Perhaps you’ll find that stillness; a state of deeper awareness and the resulting quieting become necessary and healthy habits in your life. Care to join me for a swim?